Southern Cross safari has many threads; one is ‘mammals’. This segment, describing the second day of my visit to Royal National Park, explains how the thread came about.
‘I wanted to see more of the 130-year-old Royal, so decided to do part of the 26 km Coast Track. My train left Artarmon at 8 am and by 9.30 I was sitting in the bow of the ferry MV Curranulla for the short trip across Port Hacking to Bundeena. National park surrounds the town on three sides, with water on the fourth: a nice place to live.
A 10-minute walk led to the park boundary, the start of the Coast Track. I had to be back for the 5 pm ferry, so opted for the 16 km return walk to Wattamolla Beach, which an orientation panel said would take six hours. The low forest gave way to heath and a face-to-face encounter with a female rusa deer – at least it wasn’t a stag. We eyeballed each other for a few seconds before the feral decided flight was safer than fight and took off.
I reached the coastline, the view south from Marley Head sensational: blue sea, white froth, grey sandstone, cobalt sky, and the rumbling, rising ‘whoosh’ of sea colliding with cliff. I I was admiring this when a strange noise behind me fired up my own fight/flight response. I spun around to see a well-built, bare-chested, tanned, tattooed, dreadlocked runner, pounding towards me.
‘’Ow ya goin’?’ the sweaty jogger panted as he swept past.
‘Better now’ I replied, my pulse settling.
The nice thing about ‘heath’ walking compared to ‘bush’ walking is the panoramic views, as you thread your way through a rough sea of green. A downside is the lack of shade; you need to time your visit carefully and be prepared. I was better prepared than the track, the sandy surface badly eroded. Timber planks laid lengthwise over the worst areas were a hazard. It was sad to see this popular walk in such poor condition.
At Marley Beach, a sign advised this was a significant place for Dharawal Aboriginal people and asked users to treat it with respect. I wandered along the sandy shoreline, something the Dharawal would have done for thousands of years. But I was beachcombing, looking for treasures rather than sustenance. Slim pickings today, though the many pieces of broken cunje were unusual. Also known as sea squirts, these hardy marine dwellers cement themselves to rocks; it would have taken big seas to dislodge them.
Ihave a belief that every time I go ‘bush’ I will see something unusual, stunning or exciting – I’m rarely disappointed. Seeing the broken cunje was unusual, so was my tête-à-tête with Ms Rusa Deer, but these were only entrées for what happened next.
Between Marley and Little Marley, about 10 dolphin fins were slicing through the water less than 30 m offshore, the number soon rising to between 50 and 60. Dark shadows dotted incoming waves. As the curling waters started to dump, the shapes slipped left or right – the dolphins were surfing! What serendipity had brought me here at this precise moment? I was entranced – what a buzz. Wave after wave of dolphins surfed in, one king wave carrying 10 of the playful mammals. They were having a ball and so was I. After some 15 minutes came the finale: five shapes were heading ashore when the middle dolphin, the largest I had seen, leapt out of the water, its glistening body momentarily exposed to the noonday sun, before it plunged back in and spun off to the right.
An awesome sight – I jumped up and stuck my fist in the air: ‘Yes’ I roared.
The waves now rolled in minus their surfers as the dolphins headed north along Marley Beach; I continued south. As I did so, I wondered which species of dolphin had so enthralled me. When the big guy leapt from the water, I saw a pale stripe down its side, possibly enough to identify it later.
Having seen only one person during the past three hours, I wasn’t prepared for cars and people as I emerged from a creek thicket behind Wattamolla (‘place near running water’) – appropriately named, as two creeks fed into a casuarina-lined lagoon.
I ate a soggy, purple, salad sandwich, making a mental note not to order beetroot again. Even on this midweek day the sheltered beach, protected by two headlands, was busy. I wandered barefoot along the sand, enjoying the feel of cold salt water on my tired feet, before lying down, closing my eyes, and listening to the murmuring sea: bliss.
I returned to Bundeena, watching a sea eagle drifting on updraughts, a nankeen kestrel likewise. I nearly tripped over a shuffling echidna. There can’t be too many places where you can see a rusa deer, surfing dolphins and an echidna in one day.
A water skink, alarmed by my approach, tried to hide in a small vertical pipe that once held a wooden step. It got its head and shoulders stuck; I gently extracted it. As soon as the little reptile was free, it ‘threw’ its tail and escaped, leaving a wriggling distraction in my hand.
I later identified the dolphins in Peter Menkhorst and Frank Knight’s A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia (my mammal guide). The surfers were short-beaked common dolphins, though the pale yellow side patch is an easier identifier than its beak length.
Australia is famous for its distinctive mammals. They give their names to national sporting teams, are used to promote tourism and are part of our national psyche. Yet most of us know little about them. Here’s a test. Without Googling or looking up books, jot down the names of all the native Australian mammals you know.
Many travellers keep bird lists; I decided to keep a mammal list. My guide listed 360 native mammals. Excluding the 25 now extinct, I wondered how many of the remaining 335 I would see on the long trip. How’s your list going?’
I hope I have whet your appetite for mammal spotting. How many did I see? You’ll have to read the last chapter!
The photo shows an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin gliding in for a fish at Monkey Mia, in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area in Western Australia.